Into the Sapphire Eyes

May 26, 2008
By Ryan Sweeney Sweeney, Johnstown, PA

When most people think of the word “beach”, they think of gorgeous strips of white sand traversed by a mob of tourists. They think of well-tanned volleyball players, seashell collectors, and attractive surfers riding beautiful waves. They think of brothers and sisters building sandcastles, and mothers and fathers soaking in the sun under colorful umbrellas. I should tell you right now that if you were hoping for one of those scenes, then you have picked up the wrong story.

Welcome to my hometown, a small coastal town just below the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The coast I refer to is not the bustling vacation destination that it could be, or rather, once was. The town, named Sapphire for the gem-blue waters it had in the past, has gone from treasure to trash in the last fifty years- literally. When one walked down our sands, he would see plastic grocery bags, gum wrappers, Styrofoam takeout boxes, and the works. Before he went missing five years ago while he was out surf-fishing, my grandfather gave me a picture of his wedding on the coast in the ‘50’s: even though they were black and white, you could tell that the atmosphere came from every man’s dream. I still carry that picture with me everywhere I go. It’s a reminder of his dream, shattered into a million pieces-and me with the symbolic dustpan, poised to sweep them up.

Recently, the Town Council announced a plan to clean up the beaches: too little, too late. In an effort to complete my requirements for high school graduation, I volunteered myself for the program. At the volunteer’s orientation, I didn’t think it would be so bad….until I found out what the expression “600 hours” really meant.

Hence, I arrived at the beach a little short of six A.M. on a Saturday morning, being the first volunteer to show up. I had a blank, expressionless, drugged-like look on my face. The fact that I was in my usual post-Friday night state didn’t help either. The skies were still pitch-black with no trace of the rising sun. As I listened to the waves crash on shore, I made a tired effort to get out the picture of my grandfather’s pristine wedding. I held it up to the horizon, comparing it to the scene I saw in the present-day. A beachcomber from sixty years ago would think he’d died and been denied entrance to heaven if he saw what out sands looked like today.

Well, I didn’t get up at five and get here at six to stand around. Time to get to work. With plastic gloves on my hands and a cloth collector receptacle on my back, I began to pick up glass items first: we agreed at the orientation to eliminate dangerous materials first and foremost, such as broken glass. As I spotted some old-fashioned milk glasses about fifteen yards away from me, I started in their direction. Out of the top of my eye I could see the outline of a retro-looking car pull up to the sand about a football field’s distance away from me. From it, a figure about five feet tall emerged. Good, I thought, finally someone coming to help me with all this. Hopefully he hadn’t forgotten to stop at Starbucks like I had and thus were not a six-AM zombie.

Once the milk glasses were out of the way, I scanned the sand for more glass items. It didn’t take long- a pair of broken eyeglasses appeared under my feet.
Its amazing, the things these people throw away. They all end up in one place, too.

Once I had all of the glass items in my eyesight in the collector, my fellow volunteer who had come to aid me was now about five yards away from me. I tried lighten the morale with some cracks on the program.
“The beach is looking quite enviable today, isn’t it?”
I waited for the chuckle that usually surfaced when I said those words to my friends. It never came. Taking a side glance at this man, I could very briefly that he was dressed in an old-fashioned dress shirt and ironed khaki pants. Not exactly the type of clothes one would wear for this kind of work.

Taking a bit of offense to his ignorance to me, I resumed my duties and listened to him silently taking off his coat behind my back. Before me, I spotted another glass bottle on the ground- must have missed it. I bent over to retrieve it when, out of the corner of my eye, I detected a long, blunt object appearing to have the word “Louisville” on it…

When I came to my senses an unknown amount of time later, I found myself propped up against a wall on a three-legged stool. My eyes were covered by a blindfold and I could tell that my collector and my gloves had been taken from me. My heartbeat raced in this situation: “Where am I? What happened?” I uttered stupidly….Here would be another “that was supposed to stay in a thought bubble” moments that we read in comic books. Slightly disoriented, I picked up the sound of a door opening and closing to the right of me, followed by distinct footsteps that sounded like they were being made by dress shoes.

“Who’s there?” I spurted, my heart racing. Then I broke through: The man on the beach! He could be the only one responsible for this. I had no idea who this person was or what he wanted with me…unbeknownst to me at that time, I was about to find out.

I could sense the footsteps getting louder and louder, and I could sense his breath on my face. In all my confusion, as scared as I was, I could never have been prepared for what happened next.

Suddenly, I felt his hand on the blindfold as he gently removed it. He did this in a gentle and graceful manner, a far cry from the gun barrel to my head or the knife to my throat I had expected. Within two seconds after gaining my sight, I saw them: The gem-blue eyes that glowed that were as beautiful as sapphire itself. His face was within an inch of mine, and the one focal point was his eyes, crying out to me like a lost child. They pierced the darkness of the room with their flair and brightness, and were the envy among all humans-but somehow they looked strikingly familiar. My mother, my sister, my grandmother...they all had these piercing eyes.

The next thing I noticed were wrinkles on his face. These were not wrinkles that appeared out of old age. They were the class that appeared out of years of stress, sadness, and loss. These were wrinkles that no amount of time could induce and no amount of beauty products would relieve.

He spoke in a gentle, but ominous tone that made me want to hole up in the safety of my apartment as a four-year old would wish to escape to his bed to get away from the monsters in his closet. But, as the four year old would say, the only place to hide is under the covers- but sometimes, the monsters can even get you there.

“Well, Michael, you seem to have changed a lot since the last time I met you”.

These beginning words pierced me like a harpoon. Who was this person? How in the world did he know my name? Moreover, when had he met me before?
“Save your breath, youngster. I know what you’re thinking. You want to know who I am. You want to know where you are. You want to know why I apprehended you. Those questions will be answered in due time, but first, a little introduction- or should I say, reunion”.

“What?” I was, needless to say, confused. “Who are you? What do you want with me?”

“Don’t you recognize me? I haven’t changed that much, have I?”

And that’s when it hit me. His piercing blue eyes, his distinct voice, his wrinkles that jumped out at me like a scarab beetle in the middle of a beehive…


“Well, Mike, it certainly took you long enough. I knew you’d recognize me sooner or later.”

“Where have you been all this time? You were declared missing and presumed dead for five years! We had search parties scanning the water for your body! Your funeral service was packed!”

He let out a quick cackle. “Search parties? They obviously weren’t searching in the right place.”

“What do you mean?”

“All this time, when you thought me to be dead, I was up north. Northern Canada, to be exact. I wanted blizzards, ten feet of snow, and a half-hour of sunlight each day. It would keep my thoughts out of this dreaded place”.

As he said this, I wondered if my photograph of his wedding was still in my pocket. I made a quick check of my pocket: it was. I dug it out, waiting for his reaction.

“Here.” I held up the picture to his face. “Don’t you remember this picture? Do you not want to remember Sapphire as it was, fifty years ago?”

“I’d like to, son, but the way Sapphire is now, I can’t bear to remember any of it. Thinking of this town fifty years ago only brings me back to reality. I had to wear wide-brimmed hats and dark sunglasses everywhere I went to shield myself from the hellish coast before me…which is why I’ve brought you here.”

I still had a confused look on my face…and he could sense it. I could tell he was getting irritated at me being slow to figure things out. It ran in the family-or at least, his side of the family.

“Mike, I take a look at this picture and it makes me want to escape to early Sapphire. But yet, when I look outside, it makes me weep. I can’t believe that anyone would allow this to happen.”

“Grandpa, do you know why I was out on the sand? I am one of the few who actually cares about the state of our beach.”

“It’s not just that, Mike. This town is in my blood. No matter how much time I spend in the tundra, I can never get sand and surf out of my nature. This beach was where I was born, where I was raised, and where I married, where I raised my children, and where my children raised their children. And it used to be where I wanted to be buried…”

“Isn’t it still?”

No. Not with this surrounding it. I want to look out of the window and tell me what you see.”

I got up from the stool and shuffled over to an open window. Following that, I understood his last few words as clear as crystal.

We were in an abandoned shack somewhere in the North Point of Sapphire, one of the most popular places in the town's history. When I looked out of this window, I felt the emotions of my grandfather multiplied several times over. Up and down the tides, I could see nothing but trash, everywhere. Instead of cerulean and beige, there loomed black and gray. In the place of snow crabs and seagulls, there were plastic soda bottles and Styrofoam containers. And in lieu of surfers, sunbathers, volleyball players, mothers and fathers, there was none other than the rest of my cleanup team, trying to lighten the load of it all.
This was the moment that I finally realized what we as humans had done. We had been given a priceless sapphire and turned it into coal. Over the course of fifty years, we had been given something that no one else had, something that was unique to us- and blew it all to a million pieces. And for what? A convenient way to dispose of trash!
I surveyed the team cleaning up the beach and then realized that they were all seniors, about fifty to sixty. Unlike me at the age of seventeen, with a black and white picture of Sapphire’s former beauty, they’d been there. They knew what it was like to have a priceless sapphire necklace replaced with coal. And, on the sides of their faces, I could make out tears running down. So, at that moment I decided to join them. I knew what Sapphire needed: people who care and people who take action, not people who weep and hide themselves from the truth-like my grandfather.

“Get back here, youngster! Where do you think you’re going?” he inquired as I made my way out the door.

“To restore your dream, Grandpa. And mine”.

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